Light After the Darkness of the American Eclipse
America has had a long dark psychological struggle with bigotry
Posted Aug 28, 2017
Neo-diversity is not an ahistorical idea.
I could not have come to the idea of describing our current social psychological environment as neo-diverse without understanding the intergroup history of America. In fact, in my essay “Teaching Neo-Diversity Matters,” I say:
“In America we are no longer talking about ‘the Negro problem,’ no longer just ‘race-relations,’ no longer just ‘desegregation and integration.’ We have struggled with and wobbled part way through those [historical] intergroup phases into today’s neo-diversity; that interpersonal situation in which we all have to encounter and sometimes interact with people from many different background groups.”
Each historical period had its own level of social psychological darkness. Foreboding and dark ways in which people were socialized to think of each other as only members of groups; us versus them. And this summer-2017, as we were coming to an actual eclipse I was reminded of the intergroup histories of our nation and the dark social psychological remnants of each period.
No part of our history is untouched by the one-time American enslavement of African peoples. That thought flashed into my mind as I began to read “American Eclipse” by David Baron (1).
From my summer book stack I picked up American Eclipse to break away (for a little while) from my summer reading of fiction. A nonfiction book, American Eclipse is about early American astronomers and their attempt to observe and measure the total eclipse of the sun in 1898. Within two pages of reading, in setting the context for the lives of astronomers at that time, the author talks about the civil war ending and that end motivating scientists to get to work. That’s when I had that first flash-thought: Nothing in the psychology of American enterprise is uninfluenced by the one-time enslavement of African peoples.
To see, observe and measure the effects of the eclipse of 1898, meant heading to the then still somewhat untamed West where people yet remembered George Armstrong Custer’s attempt to eradicate Indians and people still talked about “Indian savages.” No part of our history is untouched by the unfair, genocidal treatment of American Indians. Yep, that flashed through my mind as I read.
I went on, learning the history of American astronomy, enjoying the writing, enjoying the well-written story that includes the inventor Thomas Edison, among other inventors and scientists interested in the eclipse. Those scientists included a name I didn’t know because, well, because this person was a “woman scientist,” Maria Mitchell. Another flash: Nothing in the psychology of the American enterprise is uninfluenced by the too long resistance to acknowledging the powerful intellect of women.
Let me just say this: If you are at all interested in early American scientific endeavors of astronomy (and a bit about early meteorology), “American Eclipse,” is a fun, five-star read. In it you get real glimpses into the actual lives and motivations of a bunch of eclipse obsessed scientists; their technological challenges and human adventures leading up to their chance to observe the 1898 total eclipse that could be observed from America.
You see, this book “American eclipse” is not about any of my flashes; not the enslavement of Africans, not the stealing of land and life from American Indians, not demeaning views of women. But it’s just that those are part of the intergroup context of America even in a book about early American astronomy.
In Baron's well-researched book, American Eclipse, there are statements people made in 1898 that are the same statements people make today about blacks, American Indians and women. That is why it is more than fair to say that nothing in the psychology of our 21st century is uninfluenced by our histories of intergroup bigotries.
Yet, know this too: Nothing in our American psychology has been so profound, and important, as those marginalized and discounted peoples pushing through, and defeating, America’s too many intergroup bigotries. That is why, in 21st century America we arrive at a neo-diverse social environment; this time and circumstance where people from many different groups are free to walk around and be engaged in the American promise of “…the pursuit of happiness.” (2)
But given our intergroup histories and our associated long psychological struggle with intergroup bigotry, there are Americans who find it a struggle to encounter and interact with people from so many different groups by way of race yes, but also sexual orientation, religion, bodily-condition, sex-of-person, mental-health condition, gender-identity, age and on and on. Indeed, recent survey-research is clear in showing that lots of Americans are experiencing interpersonal anxiety about this neo-diversity (3). My knowledge of that research has been the reason that in my activist teaching and writing I have been calling out to American to say: Welcome to the future. The future is not coming. It’s here and now.
Loudly, I have been making this proclamation because not understanding that is causing a lot of confusion in America. You see, all of the tensions we are witnessing in America today are because for too long in this country, to organize our daily social interactions, we have relied on false categories. Race, sex-of-person, religion, sexual orientation; we have relied too much on those false categories, for getting through our daily walk through life.
Oh don’t misunderstand me; there are ways in which these are real characteristics of persons. Look at any photo of me and you will see that I am, indeed, a big, giant, dark-skinned, black man. Yet that information becomes a false category when people try to use that information, that category, to make judgments to guide the way they interact with me. For too long in America we have relied on false categories that make Us versus Them distinctions. We have used Us versus Them, ways of thinking about people to do what; to keep ‘them’ in their place; to try to keep the world simple. But now, today, in the future we are living in, we are seeing that those categories don’t work; those categories are false.
It is false, you see, to believe that women aren’t smart enough to be engineers, physicists and mathematicians. It is false, you see, to believe that all Muslims are terrorists. It is false, you see, to believe that gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender people have no place at North Carolina State University where I am a professor, and where we have created and staffed our Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgender Student Center.
In the future we are already living, those false categories don’t work. And that realization is ripping through our whole nation making too many Americans anxious, tense and sometimes angry. A white nationalist rally in Charlottesville is only the most recent example of that irrational, dangerous anger.
Why does the truth do this to people? Well, since as children, too many people were taught to rely on those false categories that now don’t work, people struggle; people struggle with the question, ‘who are the we are who are among the they” (4). Our too long history of relying on false categories is now tearing at the soul of America.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
That is the soul of America. We soil and wound that soul when we try to rely on false categories. With today’s neo-diversity we have been struggling to stop our historical reliance on false, cognitive, intergroup categories. We must work out this struggle because no matter what, neo-diversity is the social psychological reality we are all living in and must find productive ways to manage in our interpersonal lives.
Rupert W. Nacoste, Ph.D. is Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor of Psychology and the author of “Taking on Diversity: How we can move from anxiety to respect.” (2015; Prometheus Books).
(1) Baron, D. (2017) American Eclipse: A nation’s epic race to catch the shadow of the moon and win the glory of the world. New York: Liveright.
(2) Nacoste, R. W. (2015). Taking on Diversity: How we can move from anxiety to respect (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books).
(3) Dokoupil, T. (2013, October 15). 'Very anxious': Is America scared of diversity? NBC News (http://nbcpolitics.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/10/15/20961149-very-anxious-is-america-scared-of-diversity?lite)
(4) Appadurai, A. (2006). Fear of small numbers: An essay on the geography of anger. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.